Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moses and the "Key Founders":

The reason why I titled this post that is because, as you will see, Bruce Feiler has a book out entitled America's Prophet, Where God Was Born that stresses Moses as a central figure of inspiration to America, and Feiler argues the central historical fact that buttresses his thesis is when Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Ben Franklin were asked to design a Great Seal, Franklin and Jefferson both proposed:

“Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

If you haven't yet gotten his book (it's on my reading list) you can watch this extremely enlightening blogging head conversation between Feiler and Robert Wright here.

Now, there's certainly a strong kernel of truth to Feiler's claim. Moses did indeed inspire America. My concern is clarity and the potential misuse of Feiler's thesis. I worry that Christian Nationalists will misuse Feller's argument in the same way they've misused the Donald S. Lutz et al. study. They've commonly noted the Moses/Great Seal/Liberty Bell Leviticus quote to prove America's "biblical" foundations.

Interestingly, Feiler's thesis seems to be not "Christian Nation," but "Mosaic Nation," that Moses in fact was a more important political-theological figure than Jesus, something that might tick off "Christian Nationalists." But such an idea could also be shoehorned into a "Judeo-Christian Nationalist" thesis.

Feiler, seems to be if not a liberal, some kind of moderate who doesn't have an axe to grind (other than the thesis he's trying to defend). He's written op-eds on the matter in places like the Washington Post, making him a potentially attractive resource for Christian Nation types (i.e., "even this liberal guy agrees with us").

Feiler probably wouldn't appreciate (if he noticed it) such a potential use or misuse of his thesis. His thesis, as I understand it, is a broad, ecumenical, dare I say "liberal" and "enlightened" tale of Moses' influence of America. And, of course, that is exactly how Moses influenced America. For instance, in his Time Magazine op-ed, Feiler begins:

"We are in the presence of a lot of Moseses," Barack Obama said on March 4, 2007, three weeks after announcing his candidacy for President. He was speaking in Selma, Ala., surrounded by civil rights pioneers. Obama cast his run for the White House as a fulfillment of the Moses tradition of leading people out of bondage into freedom. "I thank the Moses generation, but we've got to remember that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was ... he didn't cross over the river to see the promised land."

"Eight months into his presidency, Obama might want to give Moses a second look. On issues from health care to Afghanistan, the President faces doubts and rebellions, from an entrenched pharaonic establishment on one hand and restless, stiff-necked followers on the other. There's good reason, then, for Obama to heed the leadership lessons of history's greatest leader. Like presidential predecessors from Washington to Reagan, Obama can use the Moses story to help guide Americans in troubled times. From the Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers, the Civil War to the civil rights movement, Americans have turned to Moses in periods of crisis because his narrative offers a road map of peril and promise.

A Philly Inquirer article about his thesis is entitled, "Author promotes Moses as a model for getting along," and Feiler's site promotes it as "Can Moses Unite Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore?"

Again, this is to stress that Feiler's thesis is Moses as a broad metaphorical inspiration, exactly as the "key Founders" -- Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin --understood Moses. Not as the strict, orthodox, the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God understanding of Moses. But a looser, more political understanding. In short, an Enlightenment rationalist understanding of Moses. One that could look at many of the world's historical figures and "find" in there what supports one's political narrative, which is exactly what Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin did with Moses and America's non-Judeo-Christian heritage sources. Examining the other proposed narratives for the "Great Seal," we see from Jefferson (quoting the Great Seal site, not Jefferson or Adams):

For the front of the seal: children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse: Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain.

And J. Adams:

...the allegorical painting known as the "Judgment of Hercules" where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

Synthesizing Greco-Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Judeo-Christian and picking and choosing what one thinks "rational" from those sources; that was the Enlightenment method of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. And that, as far as I see it, is the method of Moses' political inspiration of America.

In a later post, I might reiterate why the enlightened Americanist invocation of Moses arguably conflicts with the orthodox Christian/evangelical/fundamentalist narrative of Moses.

In other words, those who should proceed with the most caution when invoking Moses' influence on America are those who don't take the narrative with a metaphorical grain of salt.

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